June / July 2011 Volume 9 Number 3

Energy Efficiency: It’s an Economic Imperative

What’s the difference between data and information?  It’s tantalizingly simple questions like this, and the much more complex search for answers, that lie at the core of activities of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) and its newest initiative, the Energy Efficiency Research Institute (CEERI).

Established in 2005, CAES is an education and research partnership between the Idaho National Laboratory and the three research universities in its host state that focuses on nuclear science, advanced materials, carbon management, bioenergy and energy policy. With the formation of CEERI last year, the statewide center also has increased its efforts to promote efficient and effective energy use—a complex undertaking for analysts and researchers nationwide given the many variables that affect energy delivery systems and consumption.

Gleaning usable information from raw data is among the challenges associated with developing systems to improve energy efficiency, according to John Gardner, director of CEERI and an engineering professor at Boise State University. The issue of data versus information came to the forefront for him as he sought ways to reduce his university’s carbon footprint.

Like many university and commercial campuses, Boise State had engaged in a performance contract with a prominent energy service company in order to measure energy consumption, Gardner explained. The contractors had installed energy meters on the electrical, steam and cold water feeds for all the major buildings on campus. Gardner knew that for the past four years, those meters had been reporting energy consumption on 15-minute intervals, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

“That’s an awful lot of data, nearly all of which sits on the server and is examined rarely, if at all,” Gardner said. But this seemingly indecipherable mass of raw data has great intrinsic value, Gardner realized.  “The challenge—and it is not an insignificant one—is to develop methodologies to interpret and analyze energy consumption patterns as a foundation for improving energy efficiency,” he said.

In addition, a more comprehensive approach to data analysis will address persistently difficult problems with improving overall building energy efficiency, Gardner noted, including areas such as measurement and verification of energy efficiency upgrades, building system diagnostics and confirmation that the building systems continue to operate as designed.

Understanding building energy consumption is a hot topic these days and many groups, from university researchers to architects to innovative startups, are working on this problem. While energy efficiency has always been considered both a technical and economic virtue, it is increasingly becoming an economic imperative, as both researchers and industry leaders can attest.  Concerns about limited supplies and the broader environmental impacts of fossil fuels coupled with the still-unsolved problem of integrating intermittent solar and wind resources brings energy efficiency to the forefront.

Ralph Cavanagh, director of energy programs for the National Resource Defense Council, is a strong supporter of university-based research centers to foster and develop new energy efficiency technologies. “Leading the list of energy options is our fastest, cheapest and cleanest source of new energy supply: energy efficiency, a term encompassing all the ways we’ve found to get more work out of less energy.” Cavanagh sees the establishment of CEERI as a continuation of the decades-long trend in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to the enactment of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power and Conservation Act of 1980. That landmark act officially classified energy efficiency as an electric system resource, on the same footing as traditional power plants. “I am thrilled to see the establishment of CEERI as the first comprehensive and multi-institutional research center in the country dedicated to energy efficiency,” said Cavanagh.

In addition to researchers at Boise State University, University of Idaho and Idaho State University play key roles in EERI activities. Among these is Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, a University of Idaho architecture professor and director of the  Integrated Design Lab, an industry-funded research and education center in Boise.  “With support of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and Idaho Power, among others, the lab has provided support for hundreds of energy efficient building designs since 2004,” says Van Den Wymelenberg.  “By working closely with architects, engineers, owners and contractors through the integrated design process, we’re able to reduce building loads dramatically which leads to smaller and more efficient building systems while improving occupant comfort.”

 Idaho State University is home to ESTEC, the Energy Systems Technology and Education Center, which is  supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Labor.  Dedicated to both workforce development and applied industrial research, ESTEC plays a role in training the next generation of technicians and tradesmen needed to implement energy efficient techniques and products. 

CEERI is less than a year old but already has several active projects.  With a three-year grant through Idaho National Lab, CEERI researchers are developing better tools for commercial building energy managers.  In the near future, the work will expand to include a long-term project focused on residential energy efficiency and the energy audit process, and industry-funded work to include public outreach, K-12 teacher education, university education programs and industrial energy efficiency initiatives.
While the link between energy and economic development is widely acknowledged, what might not be so apparent at first glance is the even tighter connection between energy efficiency and opportunities for economic growth.
“Beyond the obvious implication that a more efficient operation is also less costly, thus improving the bottom line, energy efficiency has a more complex relationship with economic factors,” Gardner said. Meeting new electricity demands through energy efficiency avoids costly new generating capacity, extending the life of existing (lower cost) power options and frees up more low-cost power for other activities, he said.

“While there are many challenges ahead to improving energy efficiencies, there are also great opportunities, Gardner said. “The mission-driven nature of the research at CEERI has a high likelihood of leading to new products, new companies and, hence, more economic development.”

Janelle Brown is a media specialist at Boise State University.